Through the Prism of Nonviolence
Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2013-2014
By John Heid
Among the thousands of photos taken at a bus blockade in Tucson in early October one picture, taken by an Al Jazeera photographer, crystallizes the moment starkly and simply. The image leaves an indelible, if not iconic impression.
Through the grimy, barred windows of a private prison bus, a young Latino can be faintly seen bowing with folded hands. His shackles drape, like a priest’s stole, from wrist to waist to unseen ankles. His barely visible face is solemn, his gaze dignified. Who is this man? What has he done? How did he come to this fate? Why is he chained? Why is he headed, or rather herded, to federal court and “Operation Streamline”? (For more information on Operation Streamline, visit www.EndStreamline.org, or see the Fall 2012 Nukewatch Quarterly.)
Is he a member of one the 17 million US families separated by immigration policy and law? Is he one of the 70% of those crossing the border to return to his family? Could he be one of the two-thirds of those without “status” who have lived in the US over a decade? He’s wearing a Shell Oil Co. shirt. Was he snatched on his way to work, or while on the job?
Is this man another casualty of immigration enforcement, or is he part of a vanguard of a social transformation movement? Or is he just a guy trying to make a living, support his family and live in peace? Does he bow supplication or solidarity?
Once again the workhorse of motor vehicles, a bus, becomes the flash point of a human rights campaign, vaguely reminiscent of civil rights days and the accessibility rights movement. This time, the issue is not about equal access to public transportation. The issue is why people are on the bus in the first place — chained to the benches. The heart of the story is contained within the buses, not with the protesters locked-down underneath them. Thus, the action has appropriately taken on the moniker the Streamline 72, the number of men held in the two blocked vehicles.
Media and public curiosity were immediately drawn to the canary yellow-shirted activists that for four hours immobilized two G4S private security buses en route from an immigration detention facility to the federal courthouse — and to those who simultaneously locked down the parking lot of the federal complex. Yet, as the aforementioned photo intimates, the back story belongs to the manacled passengers.
Yes, one can celebrate that the wheels of injustice were halted for a proverbial minute. A momentary monkey wrench in the judicial gristmill called Operation Streamline. And yes, one can be amused by the “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” approach of the police trying to figure out how to sever the “dragon sleeves” that held the buses in place. And certainly we are grateful that the 72 bus riders were not branded with criminal charges that day. Still they were deported post haste through distant ports of entry.
So, after a deep breath, we look to dismantling the apparatus that was interrupted for a day, which is to say shutting down “Streamline” and ultimately ending all deportations. As the popular chant declares: “Not one more deportation.”
The action, consistent with the philosophy and practice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., created a tension “so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal.” (“Letter From A Birmingham Jail”) While those on the bus are palpably in bondage, it is our “filthy rotten system” that binds all of us, heart, mind and soul. For many US citizens, the chains are invisible. The blockade served to raise local and national awareness, but the story remains woefully incomplete, even inaccurate, if we do not acknowledge that we too are bound by Streamline.
That October morning we merely joined a human rights struggle and its contemporary vanguard — those bus riders in chains. They are the primal revolutionaries. They are the ones who envision a continent, and a world, where work is shared along with wealth, where borders are not walls but way stations. Theirs is a story of human passion and persistence which began years ago and miles away. It is humanity’s story. They are the ones who at risk of life and liberty struggle for a “new world in the shell of the old” for all of us. Those of us around and under the bus were an ad hoc affinity group for those inside. Those who engage in human rights work are supporting the vision of those who have been in this justice struggle across generations. It is a vision we share in and outside the bus. That October morning a peculiar, powerful solidarity was reaffirmed, and sealed in chains, as we all left the scene in cuffs.
Above my desk the anonymous man in the Al Jazeera photo peers out at me, into me. His visage is seared into my psyche. I look back at the photo and ask, as Gandhi advised, if my next steps will be of any use to this person. “Will it restore him to a control over his life and destiny?” (the Gandhi “Talisman”)
I notice the rider in chains is bowed, but unbowed. He knows where he’s going because he knows where he’s been. So, as I contemplate the trajectory and character of my next step, the query reads more like: Is the next step I take going to make any difference in my life, let alone his? Our fates are ultimately interwoven, aren’t they? After all, we’re all passengers on the same bus. Life.
— John Heid lives and works at the Casa Mariposa Community in Tucson, Arizona.